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Staff crisis at Royal Free during pandemic ‘put patients at risk’

Royal Free’s intensive care nurses suffered ‘burnout’

01 April, 2021 — By Tom Foot

The Royal Free in Hampstead

MORE than 200 Royal Free staff have warned patient safety was put at risk during the first and second waves of the Covid pandemic because of a nursing shortfall.

A letter from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to the Hampstead hospital’s management raises “very serious” concerns about staff “burnout” in the intensive care unit (ICU) and says coronavirus patient care was compromised.

The New Journal revealed in January how fears over staffing levels had led to military personnel being sent into the intensive care unit to avert a full-scale crisis.

In a statement, the RCN’s regional director, Lisa Elliott, said: “RCN members at the Trust have formally escalated significant concerns with management. RCN London and representatives are working constructively with the Trust to try and seek an appropriate resolution. The Trust must act in good faith and not just listen to the concerns but put in place tangible actions that directly address the concerns on staffing levels, staff wellbeing and safety which our members have raised.”

The letter, which has 236 staff signatories, follows workers raising concerns about shift rotas which were different to other hospitals in London.

The set-up meant some nursing staff had effectively been asked to work a shift for free, the union said. It was among the reasons for many staff leaving the unit or cutting their hours, according to the RCN, and meant the hospital was unable to meet a target of having one nurse per patient on the ward. Sickness and staff turnover rates were also higher than previous years during Covid and there was a ban on recruitment of overseas nurses between March and October.

At the last Royal Free board meeting, directors discussed a report about how managers had “continued to strive to maintain safe care to our patients at an incredibly difficult and challenging time”.

The figures for January showed 7.1 per cent of all the hospital’s nursing posts were unfilled while just 78.5 per cent had the appropriate training to work in the roles. Many staff from across the hospital have been redeployed into nursing roles to help out in the intensive care unit which was significantly expanded to meet the demands of the Covid patient surge.

The RCN, which is campaigning for a pay rise for its members, says that across London there are 8,500 vacant nursing posts and this is a consequence of NHS underfunding and low pay.

A spokesperson for the Royal Free NHS Trust said: “Like all hospitals across the NHS, the Royal Free London has treated a huge volume of critically ill patients during this pandemic – opening extra beds to safely admit more than three times as many patients as we usually would – and our incredible staff have gone to extraordinary lengths under significant pressure, saving countless lives, and we are grateful for everything they have done.

“Throughout the year we have listened and acted on feedback about what we can do to improve their experience of coming to work and have put in place a range of support including access to listening services, helplines, a dedicated ICU psychologist and practical support such as food delivery and free accommodation.”

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